Discover the Essence of Japan Through Its Tea Terroirs

Discover the Essence of Japan Through Its Tea Terroirs

Michele Lillie

Japanese people consider tea “a work of art and the work of a lifetime.” With that respect for tea, it should not be surprising that tea drinking in Japan has evolved into a spiritual ideal known as “Chado” – the Way of Tea.

Japan owes its tea industry to China, where tea drinking was very popular with China's elite. By the 8th century, commercial tea cultivation spread throughout the Chinese provinces. Buddhist monks were introduced to tea when studying in Chinese monasteries, and they were said to have brought tea seeds from China to Japan. At that time, the monks served it to the nobility. The form was most likely ground tea mixed with water and spices. It is said that these practices later developed into "Chanoyu," the Japanese tea ceremony.


In the 1100s, a Japanese monk named Eisai made several trips to China to study Buddhism. When he returned to Japan, he brought much knowledge about monastic teachings and the day-to-day practices of the monastery. This included the uses and customs of tea drinking. It ultimately led to the publication of a book, Kissayôljôki (Treatise on Tea Drinking for Health.) Eisai planted some of the tea seeds from China and gave some to a fellow monk, who went on to plant them at his temple in Kyoto. As they matured, he transplanted them to Uji, which would become known as the birthplace of tea in Japan. By this time, Eisai recommended steaming the tea leaves after picking, followed by drying and roasting.


By the 15th century, the Chinese method of processing the tea leaves, panning, began to replace the steaming recommended by Eisai. Because many of the tea leaves used for this were of poor quality, in the 1700s, a tea maker developed the method of steaming the leaves, followed by rolling and drying. This produced a tea that surpassed the popularity of the prior tea and was known as Sencha. Since then, tea has continued to grow as a preferred beverage.

Unlike China, where certain regions are known for specific teas, all areas of Japan make the same types of green tea. They can taste different, though, due to the particular plant cultivar and other aspects of Terroir. I suggest looking at our blog post on Green Teas before reading onward.

Japanese Tea Terroirs

As no tea plantation is more than 75 miles from the sea, the sea air contributes to the aroma and flavor of Japanese green teas. Words used to describe this are notes of seaweed and fresh grass. Despite this commonality, the differing tea-growing areas do produce distinct teas. Although not an extensive list, these are some of Japan's tea-growing regions.

Shizuoka Prefecture

This highly regarded tea-growing region is located on the Pacific coast. Its tea gardens date back to the 1200s and is considered the most important tea-growing region in Japan even today. They produce 40-45% of all the tea grown in Japan.


The harsh weather conditions, the lower mean temperature, and variable weather patterns make it ideal for growing quality tea. As we have learned in prior terroir posts, these harsh growing conditions lead to more complex flavors. The teas are also known for their deep green color.


The tea grown here is mainly used to make Sencha, the most common form of Japanese green tea, and Fukamushi. The latter is characterized by a longer steaming time, 1-3 minutes and is known as deep-steamed. The Japanese believe that the length of time a leaf is steamed determines its flavor. This results in more powdery leaves than standard sencha, and they steep into a deep-green tea with a rich flavor.

Kyoto Prefecture

Kyoto is located in the middle of the island of Honshu. Uji, located SE of Kyoto, one of Japan's most prestigious tea-growing areas, has abundant mists and fog. When combined with the nutrient-rich soil, the resulting teas are complex, with a strong umami component and a vibrant color.


Uji is also known as the Original Tea Region due to the planting of tea plants here in the 1200s. Despite this, it is responsible for only 3% of Japan's total output.


Kyoto has a damp, subtropical climate with mild winters and humid summers. They are famous for Matcha, green tea ground into a fine powder and Gyokuro. This variety is cultivated by shading for approximately three weeks before harvest. The result is a leaf with a much higher amino acid content and a more savory cup.

Kagoshima Prefecture (island of Kyushu)

This island will be found in the far southern part of Japan. It is the second most important tea growing region, accounting for about 20-30% of the tea production in Japan.


It is the warmest area with a subtropical climate. The soil is rich in minerals and white ash from a prior volcanic eruption. The teas grown here have a fresh aroma, a minerality and subtle fruity notes. As they have slightly lower astringency than other Japanese teas, they are attractive to the average tea drinker. 


They produce all kinds of tea – Sencha, Bancha, processed like a Sencha but using older, larger leaves, Kabuesecha, another shade-grown tea, and Gyokuro. This island is the closest to China and was the first to become aware of tea from the monks. Because of this, some of the tea producers kept the dry panning method rather than the steaming of leaves. With this method, they create an exclusive variety – Kamairicha.

Mie Prefecture

This area, which is lower in altitude, boasts of being 3rd in tea production behind Shizuoka and Kagoshima. They are known for the production of Kabusecha, Sencha and Gyokuro.

Japanese cultivars

Just as the different growing regions produce teas with different flavors, the choice of tea cultivar also plays a role. There are 55 cultivars registered in Japan, with about 40 of them used exclusively for the production of green teas. Most of the Japanese tea production comes from just one hybrid – the Yabukita cultivar.



This cultivar was first bred in 1908 and is Japan's most extensively used cultivar. Almost 70% of Japanese tea gardens are composed of only this cultivar. In Shizuoka, 90-95% of the tea is from this cultivar. It is primarily used for the production of Sencha.


It is renowned for its resistance to harsher weather conditions and for the production of intense flavor. Its disadvantage is that since the plants all carry the same genetics, they are more vulnerable to diseases and pests.



Developed from wild tea plants, this cultivar is grown on small lots around Uji. It is used primarily for producing Gyokuro and Matcha and is renowned for its aromatic qualities.



Along with two other cultivars, this plant was originally used in Japan to make black tea. Today, it is also processed into green tea.

If you are new to Japanese green tea, it might be challenging to know where to start. Take your guide from the terroirs. If you want a lighter green tea, try a Sencha. For more of that umami and grassiness that are often felt to be synonymous with Japanese teas, try a shade-grown one such as Gyokuro. If you want to dive deeper, seek out the origins of the teas to appreciate the difference that Terroir can make.

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